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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bleeding the beast.

Some folks in the audience may have heard of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of the traditional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that, frankly, has more in common with the Taliban than with any of the major established religions of the U.S.* Particularly, many of you may have heard of the FLDS as a result of the recent arrest of their leader Warren Jeffs on charges of, among other things, having sexual relations with a minor. While notable in many respects, Jeffs is reputed to have as many as ninety wives despite that fact that polygamy is technically illegal in the United States. I say technically because Jeffs is not just the leader of the FLDS church, he's also the de facto dictator of Colorado City, Arizona, which is densely populated by members of the FLDS church. So, in Colorado City, the law is effectively what Jeffs says it is. As discussed in a book by Jon Krakauer, and in a recent movie, the FLDS of Colorado City engage in a rather fascinating practice they refer to as "bleeding the beast." This is a practice wherein FLDS members deliberately defraud the United States government by filing erroneous claims for public support, in the process imposing a significant burden on tax payers. Their reasoning is that, since the U.S. government is a heathen government, they are doing god's will. Doubtless the significant material benefits of this policy serve as an additional, if less public, inducement.

I'm sure that to many of you this policy is objectionable in the extreme. For a religious group to use the traditional protection afforded to religion in the U.S. to both flaunt the law and defraud the taxpayers is vile. That in so doing they perpetuate serious violence against women is appalling. Speaking as a southerner, I have to admit that there are times for negotiation and times to send in federal troops to put down a rebellion, but that's a discussion for another day. Today, we're discussing this nasty little bit about "bleeding the beast," and we can all be pleased that it's only lunatic fringe groups like the FLDS who are engaging in it.

But, then again, maybe we can't be quite so sure. An article recently appeared in the New York Times that discusses a little known result of the push for Faith-based initiatives: the ongoing trend for religious organization to be exempt from any government regulations whatsoever. Consider, if you will:

At any moment, state inspectors can step uninvited into one of the three child care centers that Ethel White runs in Auburn, Ala., to make sure they meet state requirements intended to ensure that the children are safe. There must be continuing training for the staff. Her nurseries must have two sinks, one exclusively for food preparation. All cabinets must have safety locks. Medications for the children must be kept under lock and key, and refrigerated.

The Rev. Ray Fuson of the Harvest Temple Church of God in Montgomery, Ala., does not have to worry about unannounced state inspections at the day care center his church runs. Alabama exempts church day care programs from state licensing requirements, which were tightened after almost a dozen children died in licensed and unlicensed day care centers in the state in two years.

The differences do not end there. As an employer, Ms. White must comply with the civil rights laws; if employees feel mistreated, they can take the center to court. Religious organizations, including Pastor Fuson’s, are protected by the courts from almost all lawsuits filed by their ministers or other religious staff members, no matter how unfairly those employees think they have been treated.

Indeed, exemptions that were meant to protect churches from discrimination and oppression are now being expanded, or reinterpreted, to protect churches from things like "health codes" and "safety standards." It is, as a result, perhaps not so surprising that Kent Hovind has fought simple zoning ordinances for so long. No, in truth, the only surprise is that local government has proven so strong in its determination to enforce the law. Sadly, failure to do so in the case of services like child care facilities is likely to prove less humorous, and more tragic:

Ms. White, whose licensed program, Auburn Daycare Centers, has become nationally accredited during her tenure, understands how demanding the state requirements are. Her centers in Auburn have to comply with them, down to the specific toys required for each age group.

As in many states, these regulations were a response to conditions that had put young lives at risk. In Alabama alone, almost a dozen children died in day care facilities in the two years before the state began upgrading its licensing requirements in 2000.

Ms. White said the root problem in Alabama is that there is not enough state aid for working families who need good day care. But given the state’s limited resources, she said, it seems unfair that subsidies are available to unlicensed centers as well as licensed ones — a view shared by the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama, which has lobbied for greater financing and universal licensing.

Some churches in Alabama have voluntarily obtained licenses. The Rev. Paul B. Koch Jr., of First Christian Church in Huntsville, whose day care center is licensed, thinks licensing for such programs is appropriate and raises the quality of care. “But the Christian Coalition is still strong in Alabama and this is an issue for them,” he said.

Perhaps as John Giles, President of the Alabama Christian Coaliation, says pastors and congregations are adequate "quality control," but I frankly doubt it. This is not least because we're seeing evidence that the consciences of religious professionals are insufficient:

In 1997, George Bush, who was the governor, pushed through legislation that exempted faith-based day care centers and addiction treatment programs from state licensing, allowing them to be monitored instead by private associations controlled by pastors, program directors and other private citizens. Other laws enacted on his watch steered more state financing to these “alternatively accredited” institutions.

Fewer than a dozen child care centers and about 130 addiction treatment programs took advantage of this new alternative, according to subsequent studies. But several of these later became the focus of state investigations into complaints of physical abuse. A study by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a nonprofit research organization that opposed the faith-based initiatives, found that “the rate of confirmed cases of abuse and neglect at alternatively accredited facilities in Texas is more than 10 times that of state-licensed facilities.”

In spring 2001, the Texas Legislature quietly allowed the alternative accreditation program for day care centers to lapse.

Indeed: quality control so nice, they had to put it on ice. Now, I'm annoyed at all this for the reasons that are probably obvious. I'm annoyed that the absence of regulation is putting people, particularly children, at risk. I'm annoyed that the myth that religious belief makes people morally superior is being codified into our laws. I'm annoyed that the wreckage produced by this debacle will have to be cleaned up eventually and, when it is, religious personalities will not hesitate to decry governmental intervention. But, mostly, I'm pissed because this is just another example of "bleeding the beast," and it's an example cloaked in the language of persecution:

In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide “war on religion” that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations — from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples — enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.

Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation’s history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years — sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized “earmarks” benefiting other special interests.

An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.


As religious activities expand far beyond weekly worship, that venerable tax break is expanding, too. In recent years, a church-run fitness center with a tanning bed and video arcade in Minnesota, a biblical theme park in Florida, a ministry’s 1,800-acre training retreat and conference center in Michigan, religious broadcasters’ transmission towers in Washington State, and housing for teachers at church-run schools in Alaska have all been granted tax breaks by local officials — or, when they balked, by the courts or state legislators.

These organizations and their leaders still rely on public services — police and fire protection, street lights and storm drains, highway and bridge maintenance, food and drug inspections, national defense. But their tax exemptions shift the cost of providing those benefits onto other citizens. The total cost nationwide is not known, because no one keeps track.

It's not just that religious organizations are free of regulations intended to protect the citizenry, it isn't even that they're free to run operations that compete with honest private business, it's that we as taxpayers have to support them as they do it. John Marshall argued that the power to tax is the power to destroy, and so I understand and support the exemption of religious organizations from federal taxes. I think it's reasonable to provide some protection against fiscal attack even if I, personally, have very little positive to say about religion itself. The protection of religion inherent in the U.S. constitution has likely been critical to the relatively low levels of religious violence the U.S. has experienced** and as such I am grateful for it. That said, however, there are limits to the reasonableness of such protections. Is it critical to the practice of Christianity that a church have a fitness center for members? Is it an unnecessary infringement on religious rights that childcare workers be required to have adequate training? Is it oppressive to demand that facilities reach some minimal level? I think not.

Moreover, if we consider the Marshall doctrine carefully, we see a darker side. If the power to tax is the power to destroy, then the expanding exemptions for religious organizations mean expanding taxes for non-religious organizations. How can a private company compete with a rival who is not only untaxed, but whose tax burded is shifted onto others? If John Marshall is right, then religious organizations are well on their way to taxing the non-religious into oblivion.

I think that the many different stains of religion present in the U.S. can get along with each other and with the more secular among us, but the only way that will happen is if all organizations play by the same rules. Right now, it's obvious that playing by the rules isn't the goal of many churches. I'm a fan of religious freedom, though, so that's okay. If you belong to a religious group that wants to hold meetings in unsafe buildings, to care for children with poorly trained individuals in inadequate facilities, and to subject addicts to barbarous and ineffective treatment, well, that's your choice.

But don't ask me to pay for it, and don't tell me I'm oppressing you if I don't.

* The Taliban comparison, just to be clear, refers to the FLDS. I have nothing in particular against mainline LDS, which is to say, no objections to it specifically that I don't have to virtually all organized religions. Yeah, I know: I'm so generous.

** Of course, I really mean sectarian violence here. We've had more religious violence than you can shake a stick at over the centuries, but relatively few religious wars. So far.


Blogger TDEC said...

Do you know by any chance whether there are any major cost differences (to parents) between licenced and unlicenced day care? I wonder if these day care centres, as a benefit, are used the recruit/keep congregation members.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 7:22:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Off the top of my head, no, I don't. On the one hand the service itself probably costs less, but there's the uncertain additional burden of church donations and/or membership dues.

At the same time, many of the churches expanding in this way are the so-called "megachurches" which draw primarily from middle class white families who can sustain a financial burden more readily then the low income population.

So, while I could be wrong, the cost differential probably isn't as great as it first seems, and won't be an issue for the relatively destitute.

But that's largely guesswork.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 2:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I come to this from a perspective that is at least philosophically anarchist. Regardless of their own merits, these Mormons are not trying to rip off the taxpayer so much as trying to avoid falling under the sway of the "beast". Indeed their ancestors fled the beast; how, then, is it ripping off those others who the beast is also victimising, for them to escape its burden in even a small way? If anything, more people should do that sort of thing, so as to make that government activity unworkable. To point at the errors of these Mormons is to forget the point that freedom of speech must apply to vile speech, freedom of person to the unworthy, and so on, or it will be lost by degrees for everyone. Surely the solution isn't to stop them bleeding the beast but to engineer out that side of things, both federal funding and the matching taxes? And how better to help that forward than to bleed it even more? If the government is keeping taxpayers hostage, why, we should be trying to free the hostages, not bind them tighter. Their burden wouldn't be any worse if the bleeding stopped; do you honestly think the tax would fall if it did?

Friday, July 06, 2007 4:56:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Lawrence: I see your argument but there are two errors in it. First, this isn't really a free speech issue. Free speech would be refusing to pay taxes, not obtaining fraudulent public assistance. One of those options is simply exercising your own freedom while the second infringes upon others. Second, even if the Mormons don't wish to live under the U.S. government, that doesn't give them the right to try to bring it down for everyone. If there are individuals who wish to live under its authority, how is it the right of the FLDS to challenge that? Even anarchists accept the right of people to form voluntary associations.

Friday, July 06, 2007 10:08:00 AM  

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